Peru finds One Laptop Per Child not a magic solution for education

OLPC XO-3 tablet (CES 2012)

A handful of countries have embraced One Laptop per Child’s ambitious agenda to put low-cost Internet-capable computers in the hands of children in developing economies so they aren’t left behind by the digital revolution. Although Uruguay has perhaps embraced the concept most completely — getting one of OLPC’s notebook computers to every student and teach in the country — the country with the most invested in the program is Peru, which has thrown an estimated $200 million into the project. However, an article from AP technology writer Frank Bajak highlights the program’s decidedly mixed results: while there are indications children with OLPC notebooks see a jump in abstract reasoning capabilities, the program has been hampered by teachers who have no experience with computers or the Internet, and children’s inability to take the computers home or ever keep them powered up in some of Peru’s remote locations.

A recent study from the Inter-American Development Bank spent 15 months examining the use of OLPC computers in 319 Peruvian schools that received the notebooks, and found that Peru’s substantial investment in the OLPC program has dramatically improved students’ access to computers: where the study found just 0.12 computers per student in schools outside the OLPC program, withint the OLPC program the radio was 1.18 computers per child. The study also found indications that the computers improved students’ skills, with estimates that being part of the OLPC program advanced verbal fluency and cognitive skills were five to six months ahead of students outside the program. Nonetheless, the study was sharply critical of Peru’s OLPC project as a whole, finding no evidence the program increased learning in math or language, and concluding “there is little solid evidence regarding the effectiveness of this program.”

Among the factors that may have dampened the possible impact of the OLPC program on Peru’s school systems was teachers’ proficiency with the systems: teachers were to have received 40 hours of OLPC training, but that barely made a dent in schools where teachers may never have set hands on a computer themselves, or be responsible for simultaneously teaching children of all ages. In many locations, children were not allowed to take home the laptops (OLPC strongly recommends each student have an individual laptop), and in some cases parents or others tried to sell children’s notebooks. Internet access was also a major issue: fewer than one percent of schools examined in the Inter-American Development Bank study had Internet access. Meanwhile, in upper grades and areas with Internet access, the notebooks found mostly social uses, including games and Facebook, rather than academics.

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte has focused the organization on the notion that simply getting technology into childrens’ hands is the main goal of the organization — the idea is that the mere presence of the technology will inspire children to dive in, understand it, and apply it to their own lives. However, educators seem to believe there needs to be more involved, including teachers who understand the technology and infrastructure and materials to support learning. And the whole enterprise has been hampered by OLPC never having been able to meet its fabled $100-per-unit price tag.

The OLPC project is trying to move on from its initial line of XO-1 and XO-1.75 notebook computers to the XO-3, which is a tablet powered by an 800 MHz ARM chip from Marvell and support for up to 16 GBN of storage and 1 GB of RAM. OLPC hopes to make the XO-3 available with either a traditional LCD or a sunlight-capable low-power display from spinoff Pixel Qi. OLPC announced the XO-3 all the way back in 2009, and had been modifying the design ever since: it can be powered by solar cells or hand cranks, and should be available with both front and rear-facing cameras as well as a magnetic power connector — manufacturers may be tempted by its ability to run Android or Chrome OS as well as OLPC’s own education-focused Sugar OS.

OLPC showed of the XO-3 at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but is still negotiating with manufacturers to get the device built in volume.

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